Don’t gamble away your income

  • By Linda Bryant Smith / Herald Columnist
  • Monday, April 9, 2007 9:00pm
  • Life

This month, the cover story on a women’s magazine headlined “Girl Getaways,” all-women vacations, as a hot new trend. They chose sunny locations, lots of amenities and sometimes the gambling glitz of Vegas or Atlantic City.

Get out of town, girlfriend. Nothing new about that except the budget.

Thirty years ago, my girlfriends and I headed off, once a year, for a short vacation. No men allowed. Our husbands even drove us to the bus depot. For $99, including hotel, we went to Reno on an excursion “fun bus.”

We lolled around the pool, slept late, ate out, went to shows and, yes, gambled. We carefully allotted $15 to $20 a day for the nickel slot machines.

We played a nickel at a time, sometimes two if the machine was hitting. When that was gone, we played cards in our room, went to a movie or read a book.

At midnight, if we were still awake, we could legally dip into the next day’s allotment.

Once, during our three or four days in the gambling mecca, we each invested $10 in a group pool to play a dollar machine. Even getting six women to agree on which machine was worthy of our investment involved a raucous debate. If the machine actually hit a winner, the noise level rose exponentially.

We were never foolish enough to think gambling was anything but entertainment for which we paid, not a moneymaking opportunity. Thus, we never felt like losers if we came home with a few bucks and a lot of good memories.

These are different times, however. The arrival of casinos operated by American Indian tribes in our state and throughout the country has made gambling an everyday opportunity. For folks our age, that may not be a good thing.

Those casinos as well as the biggies in Reno, Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev., and Atlantic City, N.J., often target senior citizens. We have time, and we may have entertainment dollars in our budget that can be allotted to gambling as easily as to travel or dinner and a movie.

Several years ago a federal study found that the percentage of 65-and-older Americans who recently gambled jumped from 20 percent in 1974 to 50 percent in 1998, a surge unmatched by any other age group. I suspect if that study was repeated today, the percentage would be even higher.

A daytime visit to Angel of the Winds in Arlington or the Tulalip Casino at Marysville confirms that many of the patrons are older men and women. Like other similar venues, these casinos are attractive, clean and serve food at very reasonable prices.

If you’re in a wheelchair, the staff will help you find a bank of easily accessible machines and bring your drink.

Coffee and soft drinks are free. Along with the glitz of the newest slot machines and friendly staff, the stools are soft, a comfy fit for old bones. These are definitely venues where seniors are welcomed and treated with courtesy.

Yes, I’ve spent a few hours on those stools and left money behind. I’ve eaten dinner at the buffet and the restaurant in the Tulalip casino, both excellent. I’ve also indulged in the strawberry shortcake and shrimp cocktails at Angel of the Winds, and played long enough to know those horses on Gifts from the Gods slots are really snorting at the sucker who keeps betting they’ll show up and pay.

It would be easy to make these casinos an entertainment habit. Yet, it is absolutely something someone our age should not do. Many of us are on fixed incomes or have a limited nest egg. That makes us vulnerable to financial devastation.

During the past few years hundreds of stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines about the devastating effect of gambling addiction among older Americans.

Seniors have lost their savings, their homes and found themselves deep in credit card debt because they couldn’t stay away from those money-grabbing slot machines or expensive days at the bingo hall.

If you’re a thirtysomething and lose your shirt, you still have a chance to work your way back to financial stability. If you’re 75, it’s a real lose-lose situation.

I know it can be fun to spend an afternoon in fantasyland, believing the slot machine you’re sitting at will hit so big that lights flash, bells ring and casino hosts come running.

I’ve seen it happen.

More often, however, I’ve watched someone pull out a crumpled dollar bill (their last), shove it in the slot and come up empty.

When they grin and say, “Well, that was what I had to lose, time to go home,” I figure they understand they just paid for a few hours of gaming entertainment.

When they head for the cash machine, credit card in hand, I know they still haven’t learned the basic lesson of fantasyland: You pay, you play, most of the time you lose.

It worked that way decades ago when I had a roll of nickels in Reno. The only change is that today’s casinos are lined with “penny” machines that can swallow $20 in less time than it took to get from the handicapped-parking slot to the casino entrance.

Want a challenging game? Invite some friends over for an afternoon card game, and it will cost you a plate of cookies and a pot of tea. You’ll be paid back in laughter and good memories – a much better return than over at fantasyland.

Linda Bryant Smith writes about life as a senior citizen and the issues that concern, annoy and often irritate the heck out of her now that she lives in a world where nothing is ever truly fixed but her income. E-mail her at ljbryantsmith@

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